Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Cass County (T6S, R14W, Sec. 35, 36)
Surveyed June 1-3, and June 30, 1992
James L. Dexter, Jr.
Donnell Lake lies in central Cass County in southwest Michigan, 1 mile
southeast of the town of Vandalia. The 4,659-acre watershed drains to
Christiana Creek which flows south to the St. Joseph River.
Rolling hills composed of sandy glacial outwash and gravel characterize
the geography of the area. The watershed of this natural lake is comprised
of 52% forest or abandoned farm fields, 28% active farms, 9% lakes, 8%
wetlands, and 3% urban (Michigan State University [MSU] 1994).
The immediate riparian area around the lake accounts for the urban percentage.
The single inlet enters Donnell Lake on the east side. It drains Lime,
Buck and Lewis lakes. An outlet exists on the southwestern shore, south
of the public access. It feeds Paradise Lake, which in turn outlets to
Donnell Lake is 246 acres in size and up to 63 feet deep (see
map of Donnell Lake). It has a flushing rate of 1.11 years (Water
Quality Investigators 1994). There is a small island (2 acres) on the
eastern side of the lake. Shoal areas (less that 20 feet deep) account
for about 35% of the surface area of the lake. Vegetation is sparse except
for Chara and certain submergent species in the littoral zone.
Water quality conditions were surveyed on September 4, 1992. The water
had a light green color, and a Secchi disk reading of 6.5 feet. Often,
the water is more transparent (Water Quality Investigators 1994). Within
the water column, alkalinity ranged from 140 ppm to 168 ppm and the pH
was 8.5 at the surface. These values indicate that the water is hard and
well buffered. Water temperature varied from 67.6F at the surface to 44.4F
at the bottom (60 feet), with the thermocline occurring at 17-27 feet.
Oxygen levels during this survey dropped below 3.0 ppm at 23 feet. Limnological
data was collected previously in 1985 and 1956. All values were similar
to those collected in 1992, with the exception that oxygen declined to
3.0 ppm at a depth of 30 feet on August 22, 1985. Even back in 1956 oxygen
levels dropped below 3.0 ppm at the 20- to 25-foot level.
Several years ago the Donnell Lake area was recognized as having serious
problems with nitrate contaminated wells (MSU 1994). Groundwater is seriously
degraded with nitrate, with shallow wells often exceeding the EPA drinking
water standard of 10 mg/l. Water sampling conducted by MSU found both
nitrate and ammonia levels to be elevated at the inlet to Donnell Lake.
In an effort to solve this problem, MSU and Western Michigan University
(WMU) received a nonpoint source pollution grant from Michigan Department
of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), Surface Water Quality Division (SWQD)
to study the problem. Results to date (funding ends in 1998) show that
the most likely source of the widespread nitrate contamination is excessive
animal manure in pastures or excessive application of manure from confinement
facilities to cropland. This area of Cass County is well known for its
number of pigs (pigs out number people 4:1). The combination of too many
pigs in a given pasture for too long a period resulted in excessive compaction
of soil and led to serious runoff and erosion problems. Through the efforts
of this project, education and technical assistance is being directed
primarily towards agriculture. Thousands of pigs are either being moved
out of the watershed, or into confinement where the manure can be better
managed. There are also plans to provide sewers to all Donnell Lake residents
Development around Donnell Lake is heavy with a combination of primary
residences and cottages. The only state owned property along the lake
is the public access site. Presently, it has a dirt parking lot with a
hard surfaced ramp. The lot can accommodate up to 15 vehicles with trailers.
According to historical records, Donnell Lake has been managed by the
state since at least 1887. In 1887 gill nets were used for one night.
Smallmouth bass, perch, and herring were noted as present. The lake at
that time was undeveloped, with the shores described as "flat and marshy
with soft grassy shores." Between 1934 and 1944, the state stocked various
combinations of bluegill, largemouth bass, and yellow perch.
A major survey of the lake was conducted in September 1956. The survey
utilized a seine and 22 gill net sets. Gill nets were set as deep as 47
feet. Results showed a typical warm water fish community dominated by
bluegill, largemouth and smallmouth bass, yellow perch, black crappie,
longnose gar, and northern pike. Forage fish were very abundant, including
brook silversides. However, no lake herring (ciscoe) were collected. Game
fish appeared to be growing well, but it is interesting to note the survey
reported that "fishermen complain of poor fishing, even though the fish
are there." What makes this intriguing is that a similar complaint is
on file from a 1961 letter, and it was the same complaint in 1990 that
prompted the 1992 survey. The person who wrote in 1961 believed fishing
to be poor, especially during the summer months, due to the abundance
of natural food, especially the "millions of wigglers" (burrowing mayflies).
Anglers have requested walleye stocking since the mid 1950s. The state
did stock walleye in 1975 (500,000 fry) and 1976 (50,000 spring fingerlings).
However, boomshocking surveys during fall 1975 and 1978 found no walleye
survival. The fish community was similar to that found in the 1956 survey.
The fish community was most recently surveyed on June 1-3, and June 30,
1992. Effort entailed the use of four standard trap nets (6'x3'x1.5" mesh),
four experimental gill nets 125'), and two mini/maxi fyke nets. All nets
were set for two nights. Boomshocking (220-V DC) was also conducted for
1 hour at night.
The 1992 survey showed that today's fish community (Table 1) is very
similar to that of 40 years ago, and most likely to that of 100 years
ago, with the exception that ciscoe appear to have been extirpated. Gill
nets were set to depths of 37 feet, which should have been ample to collect
ciscoe. Bluegill, yellow perch, largemouth and smallmouth bass, black
crappie, and northern pike make up the primary game fish community.
This was the first survey in many years within this district in which
a bluegill exceeding 10 inches in length was caught. Bluegill, overall,
were very impressive looking. However, by Schneider's index (1990) for
bluegill classification, the population ranked only as average based on
trap net data and poor-average based on electroshocking data. Growth of
bluegill was at the state average rate (Table 2). Ten year classes of
bluegill were present, and the estimated age frequency (Table 3) shows
good survival through age V, but what appears to be variable recruitment
in earlier years (age I-III). Over 50% of the total bluegill catch was
of acceptable size (greater than 6 inches).
Largemouth bass were quite abundant. Less than 5% of the catch was of
acceptable size (12 inches). Growth rates were below state average (Table
2), but recruitment levels were excellent (Table 3).
Yellow perch were collected for seven age classes, up to 12 inches in
size. Growth rates were well above state average and recruitment was very
Northern pike are reproducing well in this system. Five age classes were
collected, and growth was well above state average. Recruitment rates
were good, and over 60% of the collection was of legal size. Northern
pike also appear to be more prominent in the community than they were
40 years ago. Most pike populations in southwestern Michigan show the
opposite (a declining) trend.
Only five smallmouth bass were collected. These were represented by age
groups I and V. Our sampling was probably not representative of the overall
population, although based on previous surveys it would be safe to assume
that they are not nearly as abundant as largemouth bass.
Other fish species available to anglers include rock bass and bullheads.
Bullheads were collected up to 15 inches in size. Black crappie are also
available, but not many were collected during the survey. Growth rates
for black crappie were well above state average, and age classes I-IV
Overall, Donnell Lake contains a productive fishery that offers anglers
an excellent opportunity for a quality angling experience. There are no
outstanding problems with the present fishery. This lake compares equally
to many Cass County lakes with similar fish communities. However, for
unknown reasons, the fish tend to be difficult for anglers to catch.
Donnell Lake should continue to be managed for a warmwater fishery. The
physical environment of the lake is such that a two-story fishery with
trout should be possible, but high abundance of northern pike and marginally
low dissolved oxygen in the thermocline may not allow trout to survive
I believe that the extirpation of the ciscoe, a cold-water species, was
due to low oxygen levels within the thermocline. Latta (1995) in a review
of the status of all ciscoe lakes in Michigan, concluded they were extirpated
from Donnell Lake for "causes unknown." Ciscoe were actually netted in
1887, but only reported to be present in 1947 when the lake was mapped.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Donnell Lake was included on a list of lakes open
to gill netting and spearing for ciscoe. This suggests ciscoe were present
at that time and raises the possibility that excessive gill netting could
have been a factor in their demise.
Water quality issues are being addressed at this time through funding
by MDEQ, SWQD, Act 319 program. Considerable progress is currently being
made in improving existing water quality problems, primarily in groundwater
The Fisheries Division's goal for Donnell Lake is to maintain the excellent
warmwater fishery well into the next century. Development along the shores
of the lake is about at saturation, and with continued improvement in
water quality the aquatic environment should be even better than it is
today. A survey needs to be conducted in fall (November) to verify extirpation
of the ciscoe population. This is part of a plan to evaluate the status
of all known ciscoe populations in the district over the next 10 years.
Potential obstacles to maintainance of the excellent fishery include
increasing public use of Donnell Lake by jet skis and power boats, and
lack of implementation of water quality study findings to improve groundwater.
There has been consistent concern voiced by lake riparians regarding "overuse"
of this lake by power boats and jet skis. There has also been concern
that jet skis are out on the lake earlier each year, perhaps harming spawning
by certain species of fish. However, that was not confirmed by 1992 survey
data on fish recruitment.
Report Completed: December 18,1996
Latta, W. C. 1995. Distribution and abundance of the lake herrring (Coregonus
artedi) in Michigan. Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries
Research Report 2014, Ann Arbor.
Michigan State University and Western Michigan University, 1994. Cass
County studies: Surface and Groundwater, Central Cass County, Michigan.
Executive summary. Lansing.
Schneider, J.C., 1990. Classifying bluegill population from lake survey
data. Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Technical Report
90-10, Ann Arbor.
Water Quality Investigators. 1994. Fusilier's Atlas and Gazetteer of
Michigan Lakes, Volume IV, Dexter.
Table 1.--Number, weight, and length (inches) of fish collected
from Donnell Lake with trap, gill, and fyke nets and DC boomshocker, June
1-3, and June 9, 1992.
Table 2.-Average total weighted length (inches) at age, and growth
relative to the state average, for fish sampled from Donnell Lake with
all gear, June 1992. Number of fish aged is given in parentheses.
Table 3.--Estimated age frequency (percent) of fish caught from
Donnell Lake with all gear, June 1992.
Last Update: 08/05/02